Back in March of 2011, when Butler and VCU were tearing through the NCAA tournament en route to the most unlikely Final Four of all time, there was no mistaking what such exposure could do for not only both basketball programs but for the schools themselves. In 2006, a George Mason professor ran a study on the post-Final Four Patriots and found that the school had received roughly (ha) $677 million in free advertising, while its admissions inquiries increased by 350 percent. Butler saw similar benefits after its near-national title miss in 2010.
Now, there is even more proof behind the post-athletics success bump: A study by BYU and University of Chicago economists looked at where students send their SAT scores, and what effects athletic success had on those decisions. They discovered that universities received up to 10 percent more scores from potential students when a school "has a stellar year in basketball or football."
BYU itself has experienced a similar boost, arguably thanks to Jimmer Fredette and the widespread publicity that drenched his excellent 2011 season:
Coincidentally, the first-year students now arriving at BYU for orientation are perhaps representative of these findings. This class of students applied to colleges after Jimmermania and BYU’s 2011 run to the Sweet 16. According to the Pope brothers’ analysis, advancing that far in the tournament ordinarily translates to four percent more applicants. BYU’s admissions office actually saw more than that, but is cautious about crediting the increase entirely to Jimmermania.
“There is already a certain type of student that is likely to come here,” Pope said. “But there were probably some on the margin that were choosing between BYU and another school and decided ‘Oh, wow, it’s gonna be fun to be at BYU.’”
None of which is particularly groundbreaking. In fact, Jaren and Devin Pope, the study's authors, have discovered similar links to this trend in the past. But this study, titled "Understanding College Application Decisions: Why College Sports Success Matters" delves far deeper into the demographics involved: out of state students, males, African Americans, and those who played sports in high school are far more likely to send a school their SAT score after a successful sports season. The Popes studied eight years of SAT data, and even broke things down based on achievement. From BYU's story:
For example, one of the questions they asked was whether sports success tends to be more influential among high-achieving or low-achieving students. They found that about two-thirds of this pool of students score below the average SAT score, but even some of the top-performing students were attracted by winning teams.
“There are some really high-quality students that seem to be affected by the sports success,” Pope said.
Which, in a way, is heartening. College sports can feel like a somewhat endless cycle of athletic achievement and monetary largesse, with minimal application to the larger academic communities within which athletic programs reside. Prominent professors often express concerns about this trend, about what it means for higher education. But here is a link -- a tenuous one, perhaps, but a real one nonetheless -- between academic success and increased academic interest at a variety of schools. That's hardly a bad thing. It's a bonus.